February certainly lived up to its old appellation of ‘fill-the-dyke’ this year – at least it did in Scotland. It was my first trip home in two years, and while many things in Edinburgh had changed, the late winter weather was just as miserable as I’d remembered, albeit persistently windier. I had never heard the old rhyme February fill the dyke, either black or white before, but my mother told me that it was one of her maternal grandmother’s favourite climate-related sayings, including the rather pessimistic Ne’er cast a clout before May be out. (Etymologists still cannot decide whether the May in question refers to the spring month or the arrival of the hawthorn – or may – blossom several weeks earlier, but there are compelling arguments for both alternatives).
Despite the ambiguity of the aforementioned rhyme, had it been May and not February my mother and I might have actually managed to do some of the things we’d planned (layered up or not): such as exploring the Canongate and Dumbiedykes area of the city where one side of our Scottish family had lived, or heading down the east coast to rural Athelstaneford, from where the Neilsons had originated. But due to the hostile weather we spent a lot of time indoors, sorting out the five messy boxes that contained all the Scottish family photographs amassed over the last 130 plus years. That in itself took up most of the week (and most of the living room), and in fact was a task that I’d still not finished when I was hurriedly packing my suitcase in preparation for my all-too-soon departure.
However, without the dykes being filled (both black and white) I doubt I’d have had the time to even manage to reorganise one of the boxes; so I have February to thank for my achievement. And even though I didn’t manage to digitalise all the photographs, I made at least a stab at sorting out the contents of the boxes into five separate categories. While it had always seemed fun just to prise open the lids and find random photos irreverently juxtaposed inside – my teenage mother playing tennis in flannel shorts in the 1950s next to a cabinet card of straight-backed Victorians – it was not conducive to any easy retrieval of images, something which needed to be rectified for my genealogy project. But therein lay the problem: how should the contents of the boxes be categorised?
In the end, the growing piles of photographs on the living room floor helped to make the decision for me. One small box would be for the paternal side of the family (the McKays), while a much bigger one would house all the Neilsons (sub-divided into the families of the Neilson clan), including my grandparents and mother (even though they were theoretically McKays). Another box would be reserved for all the cards, letters, telegrams and certificates that had become jumbled up with all the photographs over the years. The final two boxes would include some of the most eclectic of the images. One I named ‘The Victorians’ (despite many of the photographs actually being from the early 20th century); the other ‘The Bright Young Things’, as it contained numerous tiny snaps of my unmarried grandparents and their friends and siblings larking about in various beguiling outfits in the 1920s.
What follows is my attempt to describe these two latter categories and to explain the logic behind them.
The Victorians: Finding the oldest of the photographs was the easiest and most enjoyable task and was akin to being reunited with old friends. These were mainly formal cabinet card photographs taken in photographers’ studios, and were the ones most treasured by our family. Although many were actually Edwardian (or even later), I’d once deemed all these people to be Victorians on account of the aged look of the sepia images and the formality of the sitters’ clothes and demeanour.
Unsurprisingly, in those days I was less interested in family history than seeking out images of other children, whether I knew them then as older relatives or not. I was fascinated by the fussy clothes they wore and their funny hairstyles. Yet it strikes me now it was the women whose fashions were the strangest and most distinct from what we wore in the 1970s (the period when I first set eyes on ‘the Victorians’). I shudder to think of how I would get on even trying to ease myself into one of their restrictive, heavy garments. And when I look at the photograph of the young Catherine Miller Thomson (my great-grandmother) I understand now why my mother and grandmother always commented on the size of her waist whenever we came across this cabinet card, taken to celebrate her eighteenth birthday.
Catherine Neilson (née Thomson), my great-grandmother, 1892
What I find most interesting now, though, is the hint of the smile on her lips. Although there is another two years before she will meet her future husband, Robert Neilson, at a summer picnic for brass finishers where one of her younger brothers would soon be apprenticed, I am sure she is aware of her youth and beauty on that day 130 years ago. Her six daughters would all go on to inherit her dark good looks and shapely figure, as well as her longevity. Despite the fact that my great-grandmother did not quite make the century, I was still lucky enough to have known this remarkable woman as ‘great-grandma’ for the first few years of my life.
Robert Neilson, my great grandfather (c1895)
I might have been able to meet my great-grandfather too, had Robert Neilson not slipped on the ice that bitterly cold January day in 1948, shortly after retiring later in life (his brass finishing skills perhaps still needed to help the wartime effort). The box that includes all the cards and letters has a bundle of black edged notes to ‘Kate’ (the name by which my great-grandmother was mostly known), commiserating with her on her terrible loss. She’d kept those letters in an old suitcase along with the photographs of ‘the Victorians’ that my grandparents then inherited. I wonder if she ever reread them in the intervening twenty years before her short demise at age 94 from ‘senile decay’, or whether she just could not bear to dispose of them. Perhaps she’d held onto them because – as many of the friends and relatives had written – The shocking death of Bob was so very unexpected.
The Burgeoning Neilson Family c1903
The above photograph always seemed rather strange to me – not just because no-one seems to be particularly enjoying the experience of being in the studio – including my good-natured great-uncle Adam (always jokingly said to be great-grandma’s favourite child), but because everyone in the family seems to be looking in different directions with only Adam and the baby actually gazing into the camera itself. I don’t know what the photographer thought he was doing when he set up this scene, but perhaps the presence of three young children put him off his stride. Adam certainly looks wary!
This reminded me of the time when I was photographed at our local playgroup by a man from the local newspaper who hid behind what looked like a black cape affixed to a camera on a bulky tripod (in my mind it looks like one of those Victorian travelling seaside contraptions which I know it can’t be). He told us all ominously to watch the birdie, while a flash went off (in a puff of smoke?), confusing us even more. I’ve never forgotten my disappointment at not seeing a bird come out of the outsize camera, thinking it was part of a magician’s box of tricks. For the Victorian/Edwardian family, photography may have still felt like an act of magic, and so Adam’s quizzical look is perhaps understandable.
The Bright Young Things: For some reason I could not recall ever coming across quite so many snapshots (the era of home camera ownership had finally arrived!) of my grandparents from the 1920s before. Perhaps that was because all these images were small and individual faces were difficult to appreciate without the aid of a magnifying glass. In fact, if it wasn’t for my mother I might not have recognised my grandparents in many of the group photographs as their lively poses and swinging-twenties outfits seemed to go against everything they had stood for in my mind (relatively staid respectability).
It was only after carefully observing my doll-sized grandfather in one large group photograph that I saw he was clutching what looked like a folding Kodak Brownie. This led me to believe that he might have been the one who’d taken some of these photographs, perhaps passing his camera to a friend to use when he wanted to be included in the group. I also wondered if the reason I could not remember these snaps was that they had been stored separately from those we had inherited from my great grandmother, and had only been added to the family collection after my grandparents’ death. But perhaps they just hadn’t interested me so much in those days, being eclipsed by ‘the Victorians’.
My grandfather plus camera, front right, early 1920s
With the aid of a magnifying glass, these tiny photographs became a window onto a lost world of holidays doon the watter in Largs and Rothesay and mucking around with other twenty-somethings in a variety of get-ups, some of which seemed to involve fancy dress in a nod to Cecil Beaton’s original photograph’s of the so-called Bright Young Things. Unfortunately all the snaps were undated, leaving me to guess at which ones overlapped with my grandparents seven-year courtship (from 1924 to 1931), and which ones pre-dated that. As my grandfather was five years older than my grandmother (he was born in 1901 to her 1906), there are possibly even earlier girlfriends of his to be seen. But if there were any, we do not know of them.
I like to think of these photographs as the century-old equivalent of the ‘instagrammable selfies’ of today’s youth, yet I am fascinated by the fact that in nearly every image everyone is hugging and hanging on to each other in a way that suggests they were relaxed and entirely at ease together. I often wonder if these relationships were especially intense due to the losses sustained during the First World War and the pandemic which followed, giving rise to a generation that wanted to enjoy life in the here-and-now. I’d always rather naively assumed it was the more moneyed classes who threw themselves into the spirit of the roaring twenties, but Grandad’s photographs seemed to prove that you did not have to be wealthy to partake of the excitement of the modern jazz age.
My grandfather (2nd from left) with friends c1925 in Rothesay
It would also appear that you could even have all this fun without the twin horrors of drink or drugs. My grandfather came from a rather religious, non-drinking family (his younger brother became a minister, and a sister married one), and there was a certain innocence about all his galavanting around, with many photographs (such as the one where he is holding the camera) taken at what appeared to be gatherings organised by the church or various clubs. But to the generation that went before, these young people of the modern age with their free-flowing, less formal clothes, short hair (the women) and shaved faces (the men) must have sometimes seemed as alien as the ‘flower children’ who were to follow them four decades later.
My grandmother (on left) with sister and friends on holiday c1925
Perhaps for me the most difficult thing is to imagine my grandparents, who I always saw as being too concerned with societal rules and regulations (what would Mrs so-and-so think?), as ever being young and carefree. One 1920s photograph I do remember from childhood – possibly because it was so incongruous – was one of my grandmother sitting on my grandfather’s motorcycle during an excursion to the Scottish coastal resort of Largs.
My grandmother with my grandfather’s motorcycle, late ’20s.
My grandmother was never comfortable with travelling in the sidecar (just glimpsed in the photo). What if it should become detached? So this motorcycle disappeared soon after their marriage, and like many of their generation they never bought a car to replace it. I possibly wouldn’t want to travel in that sidecar now either, but at my grandmother’s age I like to think I would have been delighted at the idea and the freedom it represented. In this photograph (above), I can almost see her thinking I wish Aleck would stop obsessing over this machine!
The Incidental Genealogist, March, 2022